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Free Agent Spotlight: Corey Kluber

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Here’s a pitcher the Cardinals won’t sign, but should consider

Cleveland Indians v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

As everyone is surely aware, we’re in the part of the offseason where we’re craving new things to write about. To have literally anything happen. Months and months of nothing happening creates a challenge. Usually, I’ll come up with something. Let’s just say my mind was not on writing an article at all nor on baseball until the 11th hour when I suddenly realized I needed to come up with new content. I’m not going to reference why specifically, but barring amnesia or an impressive ability to avoid the internet with the exception of this website, I think you can guess the reason.

So I resorted to an old chestnut: picking a random free agent to spotlight. This is one of those cases where you and me, the Cardinals, and the free agent himself all understand this is in the imaginary zone, the not happening zone. The Cardinals will not be signing this free agent. But there is a world where his signing makes sense, and we’d all like the world to make sense, so I write about that player because of that.

So my whack-a-mole approach to a free agent landed on Corey Kluber today, the 2-time Cy Young winner who has struggled to return to form because of injuries. It takes very little explanation as to why the Cardinals would be interested in such a pitcher. How many free agent pitchers are typically available who have won two Cy Youngs? Well that’s actually very easy to answer.

There have been 21 pitchers in MLB history who have won at least two Cy Youngs. Of those 21, 16 of them are currently retired. Of the five active pitchers, three of them have never been a free agent in their career and the fourth was a free agent when he had just one Cy Young to his name. The last time a multiple Cy Young award winner hit free agency was Tim Lincecum in 2016, about five years past his peak.

Tim Lincecum is not necessarily the name you want to hear when thinking about signing Corey Kluber, but it’s not a terribly good comp. Lincecum was thin and wiry and relied on an unorthodox delivery who stopped being effective at age 28. He had a degenerative hip condition that was unknown until he was hit by a pitch in the elbow in 2015. Hard to say whether that is to blame for his decline or not - the reports at the time make it seem like no big thing.

Meanwhile Corey Kluber is what you imagine MLB pitchers look like. He’s 6’4, 215 pounds and has a very typical delivery. I can’t speak to his specific mechanics unfortunately. When it comes to that stuff, I just throw up my hands. Not that it doesn’t matter, but pitchers seem to work until they don’t and it’s hard to know when that moment comes. For the purposes of Corey Kluber, that moment may have already come and it might have to do with mechanics, but it also might have to do with being a pitcher in general. The risk is there no matter your own conclusion.

Kluber was one of those late bloomers. In 2010, he was traded from the San Diego Padres to the Cleveland Indians. It was a three team trade that also included.. the Cardinals. That’s right. The Cardinals traded Ryan Ludwick to the Padres, the Padres sent Kluber to the Indians, and the Cardinals received both Jake Westbrook and Nick Greenwood. Believe it or not, the trade was good for the Cardinals. Westbrook wasn’t great, but he was fine. Ludwick was pretty bad for the Padres.

Kluber was just an enormously lucky get for the Indians. Prior to the 2010 season, he went unmentioned in John Sickels list of top Padres prospects. His stock may have rose a little by the time of the trade, but by the beginning of 2011, Sickels wasn’t smitten either. He ranked 25th on Indians top prospect list with a comment calling him a fifth starter or a reliever. He didn’t really do anything to change that perception in either his age 25 or age 26 seasons. He had a halfway decent 12 starts at 26, but a 5.14 ERA, 4.29 FIP, 3.99 xFIP at that age is about as fungible as pitchers get.

And then he broke out at age 27 with a 2.9 fWAR season in 24 starts. That was probably seen as the high point at the time, that he’d settle into a league average pitcher after, which would have been incredible in its own right from the Indians perspective. Some nothing prospect developing into a league average pitcher. But well, he “broke out” again. Cy Young level pitcher at age 28. And he more or less remained at the level for the next four seasons.

After his first Cy Young season, the Indians locked Kluber up. And it’s here where the downsides of a team friendly deal really come into place. He signed a 5 year, $38.5 million deal with two club options. He was at Cy Young level for the first four years of those deals. He would have been a free agent after the 2018 season. Instead, he suffered his first injury-plagued year in the fifth year of that deal and then pitched in just one game in the first of his two club option years. His second club option got rejected and is why he’s a free agent now.

And I give you that history to explain where he’s at today. He’s started just 8 games in the past two years, and only one start last year, which lasted a grand total of an inning. In 2019, he was hit by a pitch on the mound on his right arm. He never returned from that injury. He made three rehab starts, but in his third, he experienced abdominal tightness and he was done for the year. Last year, he was ready at the beginning of the year, but after one inning, he was diagnosed with a torn teres major muscle.

He’s supposedly good for a normal offseason so he’s healthy. At least, he’s healthy right now. He was healthy in late July - the beginning of last season - so things change quickly. Eight starts in two years prior to his age 35 season is certainly not encouraging. And all three of injuries are hard to pinpoint. He wasn’t given a timetable after his first, abdominal tightness is not a thing you hear a lot, and his last injury was in his shoulder. So there is always the risk of throwing money down the toilet here.

Fangraphs projects a 1 year, $9 million deal. I imagine he’ll probably get that. He’s throwing for teams next week. I don’t think the Cardinals will be one of them but you never know. It’s one of those contracts that is likely to be easily worth if healthy, but the healthy part is a huge question. ZiPS projects him for 2.2 fWAR in 118.2 IP, which makes it sound like another average pitcher except look at the inning total again. He’s projected on a rate basis to be better than any pitcher not named Jack Flaherty. If you’re wondering, that number is 2.8 WAR in 150 innings and 3.7 WAR in 200 innings.

So those are the stakes. Kluber carries tremendous upside at a potential price less than $10 million. He will probably only sign for one year too. Seems like a fairly easy gamble in a world where the Cardinals aren’t trying not to spend money. The Cardinals won’t do it, but someone will.